Say whattttttttt? Nelson, stop with the confusies. Your title is HARD.

Last week, Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz made headlines for suggesting that the kids these days should BUCK UP AND GROW A PAIR by taking unpaid internships, especially if they’re living for free in their parents’ basement. Here’s his full quote for context:

… And the problem, of course, is the longer [finding a job after graduation] takes, then the more likely it is that a brand new graduate is more attractive to an employer and the folks that have been taking this thing hard and have not been able to engage in the workforce are scarred by it. And that makes it harder for them to engage with a good match where they’re most productive.

So we know that the labour market does not deliver its fulsome outcomes with a high efficiency, the high productivity matching until it’s actually running pretty hot. When it’s running cold like it is, it doesn’t.

So we have to be patient for that. And when I bump into youths, they ask me, you know, “What am I supposed to do in a situation?” I say, look, having something unpaid on your CV is very worth it because that’s the one thing you can do to counteract this scarring effect. Get some real life experience even though you’re discouraged, even if it’s for free. If your parents are letting you live in the basement, you might as well go out and do something for free to put the experience on your CV.

But anyway, our belief is that, over time, as the growth happens, there’s sort of a natural draw for those kids to get those new jobs. The vast majority of those jobs that new recruits get are in new companies, young companies. And we’re just beginning, I think, to have the right environment to get that. So we have to be patient.

(Notice how Poloz says “even if it’s for free” and get skewered for suggesting everyone should work for free? Way to overreact, everyone.)

These comments caused quite the… uproar (tee hee hee) from youth who are oppressed, underemployed, or just plain angry. Various responses to Poloz’s comments said that unpaid internships suck, that a lot of youth don’t have the luxury of living in their parents’ basement for free, and pointed out that he didn’t have to work for free at any point in his life, even though logic would dictate that one of Canada’s top bureaucrats probably stood out enough as a kid to not have to worry about stuff like this. “Normal” kids don’t tend to become the head of the central bank.

So what’s the deal? Is Poloz right?

Yes. Well, sort of. Struggling youth should do work for free. I’m just not sure they should do it in a structured environment.

I’m about 80% through Steve Wozniak’s autobiography. It’s a pretty enjoyable read, even though it’s obvious that he was an engineering genius who just happened to stumble upon the right thing at the right time. If it wasn’t for teaming up with Steve Jobs during a certain point in history he’d just be a moderately successful guy who built things for Hewlett Packard. To his credit, Wozniak fully admits this.

Wozniak’s experience is useful to this discussion because of what he did as a kid. It was clear he was smart. When he was 11, he built an intercom system so he and all his chums could discuss going out in the middle of the night to commit shenanigans. That might be more impressive than anything I’ve ever built. And he was 11.

But he didn’t stop there. Woz spent years of his childhood building gadgets, designing computers on paper, reading technical journals, and so on. Those skills might have translated into him getting paid sometimes, but for the most part he did that work for free. By the time he was in his early 20s, he had the skills to get a job with HP, dropping out of college in the process. How much of his success would you attribute to his college education? I’d put that percentage pretty low.

Hell, even YOUR BOY Nelson did the same thing. I researched stocks on my own for a decade until people paid me to do it. I had an interest in personal finance for damn near 15 years before I ever earned a dime off it. Sure, I didn’t pursue it, but that’s not the point. I put in years of unpaid work before getting paid. Now I’m in the position of being able to make a decent living talking about something that I enjoy.

Do you see the huge difference between what I’m talking about and showing up at a company one day and declaring that you’ll work for free? With my plan you have complete control over what you’re learning, rather than going to get coffee for some VP who just enjoys having a moron go and get him coffee. What’s more valuable — learning the stuff you’ll need to succeed or a bland “we didn’t hate you” reference letter from some middle manager?

From a hiring perspective, would you hire the guy with the unpaid internship, or the guy who worked a retail job but spent his evenings and weekends immersed in some related project? If I hired for a bank, you better believe I’d hire the guy with a successful finance blog over the guy with the internship. If I was hiring a software engineer, I’d be more excited about a candidate that could show me things he’s accomplished on the side. In today’s world of everyone going to college, it’s not good enough to get a degree and think you stand out. Work experience will always matter, and unconventional work experience will always matter more.

Do I think you should work for free? You’re damned right I do. But, like I always preach, do it intelligently. Control your own work, and come up with stuff you can be proud of. Don’t expect employers to magically hand you a job after completing 8 weeks of unpaid busy work at your uncle’s friend’s company. Take the path less traveled. It’ll work out, even if it takes a while. It’s not easy, but things worth accomplishing rarely are.


Tell everyone, yo!